A recent study found that just 41% of Victorian teachers anticipate staying in the industry due to workload pressures and poor wellbeing, an issue exacerbated by the so-called ‘Great Resignation’ currently being experienced across multiple industries.
To combat this, schools are focussing on ways to not just retain existing staff but attract new staff into high-demand roles.
Below, The Educator speaks to Eric Ryan, Head of Humanities at Methodist Ladies’ College (MLC) about strategies schools can implement to better support teachers, the imperatives of educators' mental health, and why burnout has contributed to the teacher attrition crisis.
TE: What has your experience been like as a teacher in Australia to date?
I progressed quickly throughout my first 15 years in the teaching profession. In fact, in my first role, I noticed that not many teachers were interested in taking higher roles, so much so that I became a leading teacher within the first two years.
Eventually, I moved on in need of a change. While my next role wasn’t exactly my favourite, as it was predominantly disciplinary in nature and tasks, it was my later experience at another school that led me to burnout. A mix of factors contributed to this, including a lack of support for all teachers, unrealistic expectations and extremely poor student and parent opinion data - which I believe was the flow-on effect from the teacher experience.
Before considering leaving the profession altogether, I thought I would make one last attempt to re-find my passion for the classroom. I desperately wanted to go back to doing what I loved, which was teaching children. This was what encouraged me to move to MLC.
I am constantly blown away at the level of innovation that is available to staff at MLC, so much so that I have been here for over six years. The school is constantly seeking the newest in evidence-based teaching, and I feel stimulated by being able to think outside the box, developing new strategies that will make learning better for my students.
TE: Were the growing teacher retention issues sparked by the pandemic, or has it just brought the problem to life?
The school I taught at just prior to MLC had two main goals - increasing retention for staff and creating greater school connectedness for both staff and students. So I would say this issue has been growing for quite some time across all schools. The pandemic brought this to life with added stresses, causing more teachers to become burnt out and, as a result, leave their job. At MLC, we have wellbeing checks in place that makes our support during times of isolation effortless. When a student is in isolation but not necessarily sick, we can effortlessly still include them in our lessons through video calls (using Microsoft Teams). What I am noticing at other schools, however, is that these systems aren’t available to them anymore, putting both a strain on student and teacher. Some tactics brought about by COVID have become permanent additions to our teaching method for the better.
TE: From your experience, what are the biggest factors behind why teachers leave their roles?
Burnout and a lack of professional development are two of the main reasons why I have seen teachers leave their roles within the industry.
With many experienced teachers being unwilling to take on leadership roles due to the additional responsibilities and lack of extra time, the pressure is landing on ambitious individuals who may not necessarily have a wealth of knowledge. One of the reasons I decided to move to MLC was burnout. I had so many obligations on top of trying to mentor staff which was next to impossible.
I know I am not alone in these experiences, and it is something that is seen across many schools nationwide. This has a flow-on effect as to why our graduates don’t necessarily receive the professional development they deserve and eventually leave to try to secure it elsewhere.
TE: What are the three things you feel schools across Australia should introduce to improve teacher retention?
The three things that are essential to improving teacher retention are:
- Prioritise mental health: Schools do a great job when it comes to providing students access to mental health offerings; however, the same needs to be applied to teachers. At MLC, we have a range of offerings such as employee assistance programs, as well as wellbeing classes ranging from Pilates to team focussed activities that promote collaboration. Even combined sub-school meetings that are run to specifically focus on wellbeing go a long way.
- Provide support systems - that last: Don’t rely on one teacher to do all the work, share the load around and provide new staff with a dedicated buddy that will show them around the school, ensure they are keeping up with their professional development and can have the opportunity to watch in on each other’s classes. At MLC, we have a VIT mentoring system in place, where mentoring sessions happen throughout the school day to ensure there is no added pressure on staff to do this outside of hours. It is small things like this that sets graduates up to be better teachers.
- Empower teachers with flexibility: Schools need to trust their teachers to be professional and provide them with a more flexible working environment. At MLC, we are trusted to work from home after our physical classes have finished for the day, getting extra work done in our own time so that we can do the small things like pick up our children from school without feeling the pressure to stay back until 5 pm. Trusting teachers to be the professionals they are trained to be goes a long way in preventing things such as poor mental health and burnout.